Thursday, May 7, 2015

Avengers 2- The New Order Changeth


If any list of Avengers' villains doesn’t have him in one of the top three spots (arguably the top two) it’s wrong, period.  For me, his combination of nigh unstoppable power, species dominating goals and familial ties to the team puts him at number one. 
He was one of the first major foes of Englehart’s West Coast Avengers when I started collecting comics, and his Unlimited arc in Buseik’s and Perez’s run brought me back to Marvel after a long absence.

This fandom gave me higher expectations and more demanding requirements than my usual insane levels for the latest excursion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.




Sorry about that.

It is amazingly difficult to put into words seeing all this stuff placed on the big screen in live action after being a fan since childhood.
Here are some more detailed and constructive spoiler-free assessments:

The first Avengers outing was, much like the comic, about taking the individual heroes that had already been defined previously and Assembling them into a team.  It succeeded fantastically and created a whole new level of awesome when the gang was working as a unit.

That level of awesome is where Avengers: Age of Ultron began, and then it climbed.

The characters continued to develop along paths established in their own films, enhancing and redefining identities and interactions. There are tensions evident which will lead to future conflicts, but also trust, respect and friendship which will lead to resolutions and commanding victories over would be world conquerors.

It remains true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the comic book versions, but operates as a movie. The awesome starts exactly as it left off; however the film switches directions fairly quickly.  If this plot was done in comics, events leading up to the opening scene would have provided months of story telling.  In fact, the movie could have easily been fairly exciting and fun following the path of hunting for Hydra. Marvel/Disney knows better than that. Movies are not the same as serialized fiction such as television shows or comic books. Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter fit the bill for that quest.  Each story for a film in a franchise must be a significant event.  To switch franchise gears for a moment, that’s why Star Trek the Motion Picture lacks the power of the films that followed it.  While it was a good story, the tale was basically a couple of television show episodes glued together.

There is no lack of Eventness during Avengers 2.

Also, there is no lack of fun. That’s one thing the powers that be running the MCU understand clearly:  there is always a strong element of fun.  I don’t just mean funny, which is also there, and is often hysterical.  I mean they remember the source of these characters involves good old fashioned wish fulfillment and escapist fun.  It doesn’t get in the way of the drama, it doesn’t prevent poignant or tragic scenes, and it doesn’t reduce the emotional core of the story or characters.   What it does is generate adventures that make the audience cheer and desire to return for a rewatch as soon as possible.

OK, enough generalities.  I’m going to meander randomly across random specific details and random topics in bursts of excited randomness to calm myself.  Otherwise the rest of this post will transition back to:


If you haven’t seen it yet, get going. 
If you’re determined not to see it, but want to know about it, the information below should change your mind.


First, the title character - Ultron: the epic big bad guy.  I’m aware some of my fellow comic book geeks are highly offended that Ultron was not created by Hank Pym as he “really” was in the comics.  I’m going to ignore the fact that Hank not showing up in the MCU until August might have removed some of the “family connection to known characters” drama that works so well with Ultron.

The evil Adamantium (or Vibranium in this universe) robot first appeared way back in 1968 when computers were the size of large, lint free rooms.  Since Hank Pym was a biochemist, him creating artificial life made some sense. We live in the future, where artificial intelligence is due to be knocking angrily on the door of reality any day now.  Having the character that has already shown the programming ability to create machine based, self operating AI to get his own powers and systems working makes far more sense than a guy who invented a shrinking potion and insect communication.

Plus Tony being the primary creator, as he’s the living embodiment of unstoppable self-confidence, adds immeasurably to the believability, as opposed to it coming from Pym’s insecurity.  I have said before that it isn’t arrogance if they’re always right, however, that can lead to the occasional SPECTACULAR failure on the excessively rare occasions when they are wrong.   Bruce helping out also fits, considering the obvious dark side to his scientific expertise. As much as he tries to rid himself of the Hulk, it was his own work that created his alter ego.

James Spader plays Ultron as terrifying not because he is a world dominating, multi bodied, killer automaton, but because of his moments of “humanity.” I’m not talking about sympathetic humanity, but rather the all too real dark side of faking sympathetic humanity to gain allies. His personality gives the film a villain that is as cruel, morally corrupt, and as self-entitled  as the worst of human kind can be, but with quirks and mannerisms connected to his being newly alive to make him extremely entertaining to watch.  It was hard to know whether to scream or laugh as he bumblingly apologized for removing the arm of Andy Serkis...and unwittingly setting up the enhancement of the foe in the upcoming Black Panther. 

The rapid progression through ever more powerful bodies worked as both an increasing threat and as a condensed tribute to his forty plus years of comic book upgrades.

Then there’s Ultron’s “son” the Vision.  Creating him from JARVIS adds to the family connections that drive their stories, and creating him with an Infinity Stone ties him to the rest of the MCU. Remember, the films have to be events. Also, due to the gaps in time between them, require stronger connections than weekly or monthly outings.  Streamlining helps keep the Movie Universe from becoming overly complicated and confusing.  Therefore, instead of wasting valuable awesomeness time on exposition about a Solar Gem, the need for the Avengers to learn about the Infinity Stones before their next movie is covered by the Vision’s origin.  Due to more streamlining, the Aether and the Tesseract are also Infinity Stones with links to Asgard.  Thor provides that exposition in a way natural to the plot and characters. Yet it is also awesome - featuring a blast of hammer summoned lightning. The Life Stone that powers the Vision coming from the inside of Loki’s Staff means they used a single item as a driving force throughout the two Avengers films. 

The Vision bursting out of his casket in a disoriented rage was another nice nod to the comics, where his first purpose given him by Ultron was to attack the Avengers before he transcended that programming.

Vision handing Thor Mjolnir is a fantastic combination of streamlining (Vision is immediately accepted as good) and laying seeds for later conflicts.  (Did he lift it because he is a worthy living being, or an inanimate machine?)  Thor’s unwavering belief in the former creates an instant bond between the two non-human team members, which also provides an excellent reason why a synthetic  Artificially Intelligent being would chose a cape in a superhero universe that hardly has any:  he was emulating Thor as a sign of respect and thanks.  Whether or not the hammer was proof, Paul Bettany’s spectacular portrayal of the Vision’s actions and dialogue throughout the rest of the film showcase that, much like the Martian Manhunter is to the JLA when written correctly, he's the member that  truly defines what it is to be an Avenger in its purest form, and is the heart and soul of the team. 

Visions “worthiness” set up one spectacular scene during the climax, which was created out of a myriad of spectacular scenes. We finally get to see the Odinson spouting Stan Lee-esque comic book Thor like faux Shakespearean boasts!  And guess what? In real life, they sound absolutely ridiculous.  At the point where the silliness of Thor’s monologue is obvious, the joke is revealed and the trap is sprung, continuing the bond between Synthezoid and Asgardian.  

This moment, along with the continuous other displays of teamwork and combined attacks, is a graphic display of Thor’s character growth.  Using intelligence and stealth to gain a victory by allowing an ally to administer the final blow is something the glory seeking, straight ahead thinking Thor of his first film would never think of, or allow.

It looks like Hawkeye/Mockingbird is a complete impossibility in the movie verse, though Bobbi and Hunter on Agents of SHIELD have much of the interplay the First Couple of the Wacko’s had when the California branch of the team formed.  Therefore, I was thrilled to see my second favorite Marvel couple share a moment.  When Vision carried the Scarlet Witch off to safety, their eyes briefly locked.
(Don’t crush my dreams, people.)

Considering Wanda’s magic abilities have been amazingly powerful and diverse, yet poorly defined, confusing, and inconsistent for the past five decades, the film did an excellent job of recreating that.   Amidst all the awesome, her character had one of the most detailed and interesting journeys. Again compressing the comic book references, her and Pietro’s starting as villains and transitioning to heroes within the time of the story is handled logically and with the right emotional beats.  There's also enough baggage for both of them to have them switch back without too much reality bending if needed later on, again in line with the comics.

The traditional leaders of the Avengers facilitate this transition while remaining completely in character.  As soon as the twins offer help, Captain America understands, trusts them to protect their countrymen, and assesses their skill sets. There’s no hesitation, no grudge and no doubts from the greatest fictional tactical field commander in history. He orders them in to position to use their gifts in the most efficient ways to save the greatest number of people. 

I could pause now to make fun of Man of Steel for that hero’s disregard for massive property damage and casualties, but I don’t have to. The Avengers did it for me. Protecting the civilians was THE KEY GOAL of every single battle they got into.

Wanda’s joining the team came with an added push from Hawkeye.  He’s led a number of teams in the comics, and that ability shows in his, “The city’s flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow, nothing makes sense…” speech.  The man with no powers or enhancements inspires (potentially) the most powerful member to overcome her fear, defend her homeland, and become an Avenger.

I may have mentioned Hawkeye’s awesomeness before…
But it bears further repeatedlyness.  
This film clearly shows why “just a guy with a bow and arrow” is a needed part of a team filled with technological knights, super spies, rage monsters, souped up soldiers and thunder gods.  His aim and reactions are more impressive than the first film, as he ducks opponents and sends arrows flying at Legolas like levels.  Being the only one who avoids Wanda’s “worst fear” implantation both makes him look cool and prevents a rehash, since we already saw him live his worst fear in the previous movie.  My guess is that’s why we didn’t get to see Hulk’s hallucination: that uncontrolled rampage it led to WAS Bruce’s worst fear brought to life.

His rage being stopped by the Hulkbuster armor was one of my geekly fantasies brought to life.  It was perfectly treated as an event worthy pile of awesome that was built on what came before.  The comic book premier of that armor served to once more show the modern interpretation of Tony as a butthead who incorrectly thinks he knows best and needs to learn humility - in that case by an intelligent Hulk.  In this film, “Veronica” was designed by Stark and Banner working together, due to the bonds created in earlier adventures, to create a way to stop a rampaging Hulk.

Executed just as flawlessly, and with just as much awesome as Heroic Hulk! 
I say again, YAY!

The Big Green guy got enough of his own moments of awesome; it would have been horrendously lame for the massive suit to go down in its initial appearance. Utilizing the now flawlessly working modular armor concept from Iron Man 3 (because needing spare parts when facing the Hulk is a given) was icing on the cake.

The other dark fantasies both reveal more about the heroes and advance the plot. Stark’s end of the world vision ironically pushing him toward nearly creating a version of it explains the futurist’s less than normal level of foresight.  

I need to clear up the record on Captain America, though. I keep reading reviews stating that Cap’s fear is that there is no war left for him to fight in, and Ultron points that out to him as well.  Viewers need to stop taking the word of the bad guy for how dark the hero of the movie really is.  I saw it much more as Steve’s fear, based on losing both Peggy and a world of any familiarity, is that when the war ends, he really has no home to go to.  He overcomes it by realizing the Avengers is his home.  Extra points to the Marvel Movie Makers for realizing ANY look into Steve’s head must feature Peggy.

Similarly, I'd say Natasha referring to herself as a monster has much less to do with the program sterilizing her, and more to do with the program turning her into a remorseless, brainwashed assassin...but maybe that's just me.

In general, Black Widow’s realization from her nightmare is similar to Cap's; hopefully she’ll reconnect with Banner in later movies. The dynamic between the two of them was unexpected, but it worked. It kind of reminded me of Madame Xanadu’s relationship with Jason/Etrigan in Demon Knights.  It seems obvious which of the two sides of Bruce she really adores, but the fact that she needs both of them blurs the lines. Particularly since she pushes poor Brucey off a cliff after admitting she adores him.  What isn’t blurred is the relationship is not what defines her; but her past and abilities.  

Much like watching Agents of SHIELD provides back story for the opening of this film, Agent Carter does the same for Natasha’s past.  Gotta love a well-run shared universe!

It weakened her character a little having her captured, but led the plot to more awesomeness for her and others. (Ultron- "What doesn't kill me..." and Hulk- leaping, real crazy big Hulk leaps.  YAY!) My guess it has less to do with showing a female character as weak, and more to do with hiding Scarlett Johansson’s pregnancy, so I’ll let it slide.    I can pretend she let herself get caught in a spy like plan to find Ultron’s hiding place.  After all, with her second best in the world fighting skills, a straight take out was hard to accept.

She’s second best because they’ve kicked Steve Rogers’s “peak human” abilities into the comic book range.  It’s now gone beyond, “the peak he could normally achieve” to “the peak potential for any human being ever.”  Tearing a log in half to punctuate his disagreement with Tony was impressive, leaping off a motorcycle and throwing it at Hydra agents was amazing, and battling an unstoppable monster robot atop a moving vehicle as a delaying tactic was nothing short of magnificent.

The log tearing took place on the Barton homestead during the lull of the film, because there is a Hollywood law stating there must be a "heroes regroup after a bad day" scene.  It’s a well structured breather, mainly because everyone’s concerns are in character.

Thor’s concerns are above the realm of Midgard, leading to some extremely comic book accurate Thor alone time where he runs off to learn about plot elements mere mortals would have no way of guessing.
He also spends part of this time shirtless, because Marvel isn’t stupid and realizes the female Avengers attendance numbers are inching towards the fifty percent mark.   I can’t wait for the extended cut to see how Loki figures in to all of this.

The down time also served as a nice counter point to the “up time” of the victory party.  Good to see Cap’s remembered his WWII buddies and invited them, particularly that universes version of his friends' co creator. (YAY STAN!)  In both cases, we got to see that there are definite differences in philosophies between the heroes, whether it be on the merits of being proactive against evil, or (in one of the film’s greatest running gags) the use of “language.”   However, those differences are less important than their common goals.  All signs point to it being a preview of massive amplifications of those ideas in Civil War.

Those of you waiting for my standard nerd range rant at otherwise "not Ultimate" Clint’s domestic life…keep waiting for two excellent reasons.

1) Barton has gone through a long list of relationships in the 616 universe comics.  However, much like DC's Kyle Rayner, the reasons for them ending weren’t connected to his personality, infidelity or inability to combine super heroing with a personal life.  Clint is one of the biggest victims of “a writer needs to end your relationship to use characters somewhere else.” When connected with a woman, he’s always been characterized as being deeply committed, strongly focused, and usually falling honestly in love.  It’s perfectly natural seeing the romantic archer with a wife and family.

2) His wife was the first person to FINALLY call him Hawkeye!

Because of the compressed time frame of the films, we only got to hear about, but not meet, the young, brash, pain in the butt Hawkeye.  Now he is the more mature and experienced, but still feisty and wisecracking Hawkeye, who works as a perfect foil for the Avengers’ latest smart aleck kids.  I’m really looking forward to further banter and team building between Clint and Pietro, and the combat team ups of Quicksilver’s super speed and Hawkeye’s unerring aim and reactions.

I was getting ready for a giant nerdsplosion when all the arrows (HAH!) were foreshadowing Clint dying. He even “Bought a farm!” GET IT?  Luckily, that was misdirection for Pietro’s self-sacrifice to prove himself worthy of Avengerness, and kick starting Wanda’s powers into awesomeness levels.

Speedster fans don’t worry.

Yes, Pietro was Gatling gunned to death.

However, he:
Is an artificially enhanced individual with super speed based healing,
Appears in a movie with a box that created a living being, 
Shares a universe with a TV show that used alien blood to bring about a half dozen people back from fatal injuries,
And is based on a comic character with strong ties to the Inhumans - who have their own movie coming.

Plus the actor has a multi picture deal…
In other words, see you in Infinity War, if not Civil War, Mr. Maximoff.

The farm is also where Nick Fury made his triumphant return.  The fact that he’s able to keep that farm and Hawkeye’s family off the grid is a testament to his continued awesomeness.  Predicting his even more triumphant “something dramatic” later on was a bonus.
Speaking of Fury, it’s time for me to geek out again about the impressiveness of how they handle the shared universe.

Not only did they bring in characters with ties to the Avengers…After all, if you had War Machine on speed dial, wouldn’t you call him when a flying robot army showed up?  Also, though he came in to the new team at the end, it was logical to leave Falcon out of the action, if not the celebrations. 

A) He’s more built for stealth and speed than heavy assault, or long range flight.
B) It was clear at the party that he feels as strongly as Steve about the importance of finding Bucky and was likely too deeply involved with that mission when everything went down to get there in time.

They continued the “excellence of absence” with Pepper and Jane Foster.  Based on their relationships created in the individual franchises, the women couldn’t simply be ignored.  Though I’m a bigger fan of Bethany Cabe and Sif in the comics, the movies have believably turned Pepper and Jane into “the one” for their heroes. 

And it was ridiculously cute seeing the massively testosterone filled Goldilocks and Shellhead competing over who’s girlfriend was most impressive.

Oh yeah, “Black Widow” called Iron Man “Shellhead!”  I think I made the same little, “Yay,” noise out loud that Tony did when he found the secret door!

In all honestly, I think there were only two niggling little complaints I had for the whole film, which has to be some kind of record for me in a Super Hero Movie.

1) Nick Fury shows up in the original Helicarrier (WOO HOO!) run by “loyal SHIELD Agents.”  That included Maria Hill. 

Watching these films with my daughter, extra strong butt kicking women are always welcome.

But where the heck were Agent Coulson and the gang?  Are there three sets of SHIELD now?  We got a bit of an explanation Tuesday night about how Fury had Coulson secretly working on it as the Theta Protocol.  We better get some more details in the finale, complete with guest stars on the series to show reaction shots to the Avengers learning Phil is alive.

2) Cap lines up the new team, looking a heck of a lot like the payoff in Avengers Volume 1 Number 16 and yells "AVENGERS …"
Roll credits.

I’d like to apologize to everyone else in the theater for the explosively loud,
“GAH!” I bellowed at that moment as I fell over onto my daughter.

Looks like I’ll have to finish it myself again.

If these movies keep upping the awesome ante…I’m going to need a bigger shelf!


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